Saturday, March 26, 2016


General Secretary for Greeks Abroad Mihalis Kokkinos is the bearer of an interesting title, for one assumes from his position description that he is our secretary, yet none of us apodimoi have ever appointed him or approved his assumption of that position.
This is important to point out for ‘our’ General Secretary, during his brief sojourn in our constituent of the lands of the Greeks Abroad, has been making various statements that concern us, with a minimum of consultation or discussion with those who he purports to serve.
Thus, while on the one hand he states with enthusiasm that he wholeheartedly supports the granting of Greeks Abroad the right to vote in Greek elections, on the other he has unveiled his grand if convoluted plan for the resuscitation of the defunct Council of Greeks Abroad (SAE). The centerpiece of that plan, is, supposedly, the broadening of the Council’s representative base so that all Greeks Abroad may be granted a vote, through their institutions.
Here there is, gentle reader, cause for pause. If Greeks Abroad are to be Hellenically enfranchised and thus able to participate directly in Greek politics, why would they need a Council of Greeks Abroad? What possible significance or relevance could vote in a Council for Greeks Abroad possibly have to someone already voting in Greek elections? Does a person who votes in both the Greek elections and Council of Greeks Aboard elections assume electoral rights over and above those of the average Greek citizen? What are the constitutional implications of such a super-enfranchisement? Or does our perspicacious General Secretary envision the Council as an organsiation that will only give voice to the (majority) Greeks Abroad who are not entitled to, or will not exercise their right to vote in Greek elections?
Sadly we do not know the answer to this question, for while our diligent General Secretary waxed lyrical on the subject of votes, he was rather light on any other substantive issue. According to him, Greeks Abroad will be able to participate in the Council of Greeks Abroad, via their community organsiations, whether these are the Greek Orthodox Community of Melbourne and Victoria, which our beloved GS rightly paid lip service as the organisational star around which our other communal bodies revolve. Furthermore, and hold on to your beanies, for footy season is nigh, in order to make SAE truly representative, a multitude of individuals of special interest, and organisations that do not have a specific place of origin as the reason behind their creation will also be admitted. It is with jubilation that we see our devout GS proving the Biblical proverb “there is nothing new under the sun” correct, for organisations of this nature, and individuals were included in the last Council for Greeks Abroad as well.
Apparently, then, all one has to do in order to gain a stake in SAE is to join their local ethnotopical syllogo/soccer club/ tsiftetli pump class/ rabid pro-Hellenic facebook page. When first attempting to appreciate the breadth of our fearless General Secretary’s vision for our people, I felt this was a stroke of genius. In one fell swoop, our GS has arrested the terminal decline of our community organisations, for even as these lines are read by the gentle reader, hundreds of thousands of Greek-Australians are mobilising to re-swell the ranks of their organsiations, simply in order to be given a place at the SAE table. Sadly, the GS does not describe what that place will be. Nor does he actually state what conditions would be imposed upon organisations in order to ensure that members voices would adequately be heard at any SAE conference. In fact, his statement is nonsense, because organisations are bound by their constitutions and within these, the powers of committee members, as opposed to ordinary members to make decisions on behalf of their organisation are clearly defined. Our well-intentioned GS is either being disingenuous, or he really has no idea but the complex structure of, and the challenges facing our increasingly diverse community.
Considering our red GS’s statement that the previous SAE didn’t work, something I take issue with, we would do well to wonder why he believes that our enthnotopical and other organisations, most of which have been deserted by their members, are qualified to adequately represent the Greeks Abroad, especially when the average period for regime change is 15 years, and the vast majority of Greek-Australians no longer see much relevance in identifying with the region of Greece from which their parents hail, nor belong to such organisations and are thus effectively disenfranchised in our GS’s rather narrow vision. One would suppose that our ingenious GS, brought up in a highly politicised culture of class conflict would have them create their own organisation in which to engage in the dialectic.
As is the usual case with Greek pontificators and politicians alike, in attempting to articulate his vision for SAE, Kokkinos has failed to see the wood for the trees, plunging into a flawed, garbled and unworkable foray into structural issues electoral politics because he probably mistakes that for community cohesion and participation and not delineating how SAE will relate to the Greek government of the Greek-Australian people. Significantly he has not told us what exactly (assuming that they get the voting right and our community organisations desist from the internecine strife that will invariably ensue in the inevitable scramble for privileges) SAE ‘s role will be. We know neither whether its deliberations will carry any weight with the Greek government nor whether its resolutions will have the status of law. This is probably because he himself does not know. As an aside, I would be interested to consider his suggestions as to how to gain the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia’s trust in SAE, given that the Archdiocese pronounced it flawed from its inception and did not participate in it. Here again there is a resounding silence and it is noteworthy that General Secretary Kokkinos did not identify that vital organisation as significant in all his expositions about representation.
I find our unelected, foisted General Secretary’s assertion that the previous SAE failed offensive. If it did fail, it did so because the Greek government wanted it to. It failed because the Greek government took it upon itself not only to restrict and define who would supposedly have a voice at the Council (and these definitions were more often than not politically motivated), thus creating schisms within communities but also, because it could not and would not permit Greeks Abroad to dictate or even articulate policy to it. As a result it squandered millions (some of which belonged to wealthy visionary Greeks Abroad such as the late Andrew Athens), in sustaining an elaborate charade wherein we were led to believe that our opinions counted, that a genuine consultative body existed that could advise and inform Greek governments about issues of concern to us. There was not and there never will be.
The truth is that Greek governments and the Greek people want us Greeks Abroad, nowhere near the Greek political system and especially nowhere where we can exercise influence. We are a threat. As persons living in another country, with increasingly limited material interests in our place of origin, we are that dangerous thing: original thinkers, unencumbered by the need to bow and scrape in order to crawl through the sludge that is the venal political society of modern Greece. We fear not the politicians, nor do we need to compromise our integrity or our beliefs in the hope that our son/daughter/cousin/grandchild is able to go to school/find a job/open a business. Instead, we think outside the square, are innovative and are able to conceive of bigger pictures that our compatriots, mired in the filth of corruption and social disfunction, have given up hope of beholding. And this scares the excrement out of the Greek bureaucracy.
SAE Oceania past leaders such as Costas Vertzayias and George Angelopoulos did their utmost to make SAE work, free-trippers notwithstanding. It is significant that one of the only local community-generated philanthropic benefactions to come out of SAE arose in Australia, the brainchild of the Panepirotic Federation of Australia and Costas Vertzayias, being the raising of funds in order to build a medical clinic in Giorgoutsates, Northern Epirus. Costas Vertzayias shared with us a vision of a united Greeks Abroad who for the first time, could communicate with each other, share experiences and problems with each other and most of all, help each other. It is a vision that endures within many of us still. Arguably, this can be done without the need or interference of the Greek government and could possibly be a more relevant and engaging model for a new SAE.
 When the Greek government finally washed its hands of the SAE that it effectively sabotaged, George Angelopoulos persisted, despite a dearth of funds, in organizing SAE on a local level, especially keeping alive that excellent means for inclusion of the disenfranchised youth: the Panhellenic Games. We are indeed then, the true believers and if our General Secretary is serious about reviving SAE, he should imbibe deeply of these leaders’ passion and commitment.
Finally, I take umbrage at a person who purports to represent my interests, though I am not able to elect him or have a say in his appointment, visiting my country and telling me that while I individually and my community as a whole has a voice that will be heard by the Greek government, it is the Greek government that will determine the tone, timbre and composition of that voice. If the Greek government does have any sort of respect for the Greek-Australian community, perhaps it could afford it to us by permitting us to work out for ourselves, who are our best, most effective and relevant (to our issues, not Greece’s) representatives, that is, after they reveal to us from on high, the status those representatives will be granted, in the motherland. If we are not afforded this modicum of respect, and judging by our visiting General Secretary’s performance, this is highly likely, then it is probably best that we do not involve ourselves in the sorry exercise at all.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 26 March 2016

Saturday, March 19, 2016


Κόκκινη κλωστή, δεμένη, στην ανέμη τυλιγμένη, δώσ' της κλώτσο να γυρίσει, παραμύθι ν' αρχινίσει..

The above traditional saying, when beginning a tale in Greek, signifies the fact that in the Greek context, a tale is not woven but rather embroidered. Embroidery, one of the most ancient of the Greek arts and one of the most renowned handicrafts of Byzantium, enjoying an extraordinary flourishing between the middle of the 17th and the end of the 19th centuries is thus deeply interwoven within the Greek psyche as a constituent of the expression of identity, in a manner as flexible as no other.  For although styles and designs were transmitted either through commerce or marriage, strong regional patterns and techniques were preserved that persist in the common consciousness to the present day.

Greek embroidery was thus traditionally a vehicle for a community aesthetic. As such, embroidery, is a means of study of the political, cultural and economic influences on the different regions of the Greek  world and more besides. The decorative motifs were generally arranged horizontally, vertically, diagonally or in a circle with patterns repeating or alternating.

Kathryn Gauci, in her first novel "The Embroiderer" has been able to capture not only this tradition as a phenomenon, but also its methodology, which she expertly employs in the embroidering of her own tale. Thus, a story of breathtaking intricacy arises from the various silken word-threads that she loops over, under and through generations of Greek history. At the time of reading, some of those strands appear disparate or unintelligible. Some recurring patters take us on a journey of hope, renewal and almost inexpressible beauty. Others are dark, convoluted and dyed with the anguish of pain, fear and loss, so much so that their threads seem tortured and stretched, almost to the point of breaking. The analogy of threads also extends to the bonds linking the three main protagonists of the novel through their turbulent lives, together with the complex, colorful embroideries they created in fact or by analogy. It is only when the reader comes to the end of this magisterial work, that it is able to perceive, having followed the twists and turns of Gauci's pen, threading across the pages, the overall pattern, which is of life itself.

It is high time that the traditional handicrafts or artistic traditions of Greece served as an inspiration for the production of literature, and in her work, Gauci acquits herself adequately, placing herself on par with Orhan Pamuk's "Red,"  a story inspired and revolving around the tradition of Ottoman calligraphy, or Bahiyyih Nakhjavani's "Paper," a story revolving around the Persian art of paper-making. There is an inherent danger in such an approach however. A steady hand is required so that the subject matter and the motif is neither exoticised to the point of triviality or orientalised to the point of offensiveness. In Gauci's expert hands, the novel almost generates sensory overload-strong, evocative appeals to smell, touch, sound, and feeling - while remaining tasteful, restrained and highly disciplined. These sensory treats are as much a part of the story as the words themselves, as should be the case in a piece of skilled word-embroidery.

Of course what juxtaposes Gauci's work from other treatments of "oriental" handicraft is the fact that she refuses to be bound by borders, ethnicity, nationalism or time. Instead, her narrative embellishes and is embellished in turn, an international multi-ethnic and multi-lingual silken tableau that is a confluence of influences, conflicts and historical progressions. It is in her innate ability to highlight, shade, raise in sharp relief and parallel circumstances and characters, all the while achieving an equilibrium and mastery of pattern, that evokes and yet transcends definitions of tradition, without detracting from a highly crafted narrative, that her true genius lies.

The narrative itself has an inexorable sense of rhythm that lends the work an ultimately cinematic feel. This is a story that cries out for dramatisation. A late-night call from Athens pulls a young woman from 1970s London to the bedside of a dying aunt, the last link to the mother she never knew. Visiting a hitherto unknown homeland, the tightly wound threads of her family's past begin to unravel and she discovers a family history rooted in commerce and couture, intrigue and war, aristocrats and subversives. While embroidery is the thread that unites each successive generation, given that the family becomes skilled in embroidery and uses that skill to make a living, the family is blighted by a curse that determines the fates of all its members. Unlike the contrived magical realism of the acclaimed "Witches of Smyrna," which is overdone to the point of implausibility, Gauci's foray into the realm of the paranormal is both cogent and credible. History here meets tragedy in the most classical of senses as the fatal flaw within the contrary character of one of the main protagonists brings about pain, destruction but ultimately, in loss, redemption.  The sinuous path of fated, inescapable devastation is traversed via a narrative thread that takes us from nineteenth century genocide, through to the rise of nationalism, the Balkan Wars, the First World War ,the Asia Minor catastrophe and the Second World War. As history is made, four generations of legendary and yet redoubtable beauties  struggle to protect themselves and their family from the vicissitudes of fortune.

The narrative weaves and wends back on itself innumerable times. The juxtaposition of Dimitra Laskaris's delicate crystal saucer and embroidered napkin and the old seer's dire prophecy as the Ottoman Empire was ending exemplifies the tension experienced throughout the novel, in that for nearly each respite of peace and beauty there is one or more of death and destruction. Nonetheless, the women and their embroideries, stitched for themselves, for countless destitute women in the empire and beyond, as well as for the highest echelons of Ottoman and Greek society survive, as sharp and shining as their needles. Matriarch Dimitra, her granddaughter Sophia, and Sophia's granddaughter Eleni are thus not the stereotypical, yawnworthy one-dimensional strong, feisty heroines of many forgettable historical novels. Instead, these protagonists and the sum of their experiences the massacre on Chios through the end of the Second World Wat in Greece, appear remarkably contemporary.

Gauci's sensitive focus upon the successive female generations of a, to all intents and purposes,  matriarchal family would lead one to argue that "the Embroiderer" is a feminist novel, in the sense that the indomitability of the main characters and the manner in which they pursue their interests causes a significant shift in the gender norms of an otherwise monolithically patriarchal society. Furthermore, given this is a historical novel, Gauci's intergenerational treatment of her female protagonists renders her work a facilitator of an analysis of the Ottoman Empire and early modern Greece that takes issues of gender properly into account. It goes without saying that by focusing almost exclusively on the females of the family, Gauci is questioning and transforming androcentric systems of thought which posit the male as the norm. Her saga could thus be seen as not only revealing and critiquing androcentric biases, but also attempting to examine beliefs and practices from the viewpoint of the "other," in the process, objectifying women. Finally, in showcasing a group of enterprising and independent women, who through industry, flair and sheer brilliance are able to transcend the gender stereotypes for their age, for example by setting up successful businesses, taking lovers and even conducting clandestine intelligence operations, Gauci goes a long way in showing that existing inequalities between dominant and marginalized groups can be removed and that we can revise our way of considering the  history and society in which the narrative unfolds, so that neither male nor female is taken as normative, but both are seen as equally conditioned by the gender constructions of their culture, as indeed we, the readers, are. As a corollary, her portrayal of male characters is incisive and plausible, that of one of the protagonists' Russian lovers being of infinite value, as it appears to be a  "tame" counterpart to the unruly and primal immortal White Russian refugee characters Junkermann and Colonel Liapkin, created by Karagatsis.

Embarking on a narrative of such temporal scope is not an easy task and occasionally, Gauci's dialogue feels strained, as it appears that characters are explaining matters of context and history simply for the benefit of the reader. Despite this, Gauci expertly avoids being didactic. What people ate and drank, how they slept, worked, communicated, loved and lived within the framework of two religions, fundamentally different in philosophy, yet joined at the hip. All of this the author encourages us to appreciate in the course of her tale. Though over a century in scope, the pace of the narrative does not flag, nor is the reader tempted to skim over portions of the text; the excitement and tension of the plot is transmitted through the characters, all of whom are invested with uncanny authenticity, directly to the reader.

It is perhaps trite to state that the flow of people and the movement of ideas in the Aegean literal has been truly tidal, and "the Embroiderer" will allow the reader appreciate the profound fears and insecurities as well as the bad blood that have always underlain relations between both sides of the Aegean. The reader is especially made conscious of what happens as empires crumble: how the hatreds, which are largely subsumed in a working multicultural empire, rise to engulf both those who know their world is collapsing and those who see the chance to throw off the rule of the empire. Gauci's description of the sack of Smyrna is a harrowing work of art of its own accord. All of the tensions and tragedies of the period are superbly portrayed in this book and the scope and the timescale are handled with great skill.

Such verisimilitude is vital as the narrative draws to a close, for if time, events and conditions were not depicted so faithfully, its ultimate resolution, which sees all certainties turned on their head, as a final revelation proves that while ethnicity, religious and social identity are certainly germane to the human condition,  they are not absolute determinates of it, would not be nearly so powerful and moving as it is embroidered by the author.

"The Embroiderer," remarkably Kathryn Gauci's first novel is a must read by all of those who would understand the eastern Mediterranean, embroidery and life itself.

"The Embroiderer," will be launched by Dean Kalimniou and the author at the Greek Centre on Wedensday, 23rd March 2016 at 7pm.
First published in NKEE on Saturday 19 March 2016

Saturday, March 12, 2016


"Don't speak to your baby in Greek," the mothercraft nurse told us. "She will only get confused and this will slow her down at school."

In the usual course of events, I am mild mannered and self-effacing, only because for some obscure biological reason, there is a time lag of several minutes between the delivery of speech and the commencement of my cognitive processes in response. On this occasion however, I was quick at the repartee: "Really? Are you a linguist as well as a nurse? Point me to the scientific evidence upon which you base your claim." The nurse fixed me with a steely gaze momentarily and then proceeded to chat with my wife, erasing all aspects of my existence from her consciousness. This was of great relief.

It so happens that we didn't follow the multi-talented nurse's advice. I have continued to speak to my daughter in Greek and my wife, in her own language. As a result, she is currently competent in both of her ancestral languages. With the invaluable support of our families, we are at the stage now where, upon my return home from work, I am greeted by my three year old daughter with salutations of the following nature: «Ώστε ήρθες, απαίσιο τέρας.» which I suspect are only partly a result of her propensity to watch Greek cartoons and probably more have to do with my own maternal progenitor's sense of humour. We eagerly await the challenge of our daughter's imminent immersion into the Anglosphere, when she commences school, anticipating the manner in which she will reconcile, reject, or transcend her various identities, linguistic and otherwise. As she informs, me, at school, she will not speak Αγγλικά, but Εγγλέζικα, an idiom she is yet to master.

Greek teachers throughout Victoria are generally stressing the vital importance of "getting them while they are young," because it makes sense that if children commence Greek school without having had a protracted and prolonged exposure to the language, their experience can often be an alienating and traumatic one, especially considering that learning Greek is not just about learning a language for our community, but a process of socialization, and absorbing a multitude of cultural memories and presuppositions, many of which are angst laden. As a corollary, children who have been exposed to the language from the cradle, will not only feel comfortable with it, but also will have the background and the skills to be extended so as to truly make the language a useful one. Chances are, if children are possessed of a vocabulary sufficient to make themselves understood and express their thoughts, they will find a place for that language within their lives. If not, they will often struggle with the language, develop a negative attitude towards it and reject it as irrelevant.

Cradle immersion, something considered axiomatic a generation ago, is now a challenge. Many parents, though possessed of adequate fluency in Greek, choose not to speak that language to their children allowing that role to be assumed, if at all, by grandparents. Other parents, especially those in, or products of mixed marriages, do not have such linguistic skills, and others still, even if they do have the appropriate linguistic knowledge to impart, have limited contact with their children as they both work and are compelled to relegate their offspring to child care. Even newly arrived members of the community are experiencing problems in this regard. Many migrants lack a support network of an extended family that can speak Greek to their infants. The pressures of work cause them to leave their children in child care, where during the day, they are spoken to in English. As a result they being reared in a linguistic discontinuity that sees them adopt English as their language of discourse at an early age, causing their parents not a insignificant amount of anguish.

Considering the above, and considering as well, that we still as a community still pay lip service to the importance of preserving the Greek language, it is astounding that we have a relative dearth of Greek language early learning centres in Melbourne. While the Italian community, through such centres as Bravissimi, (in Airport West and Carlton), seem to appreciate the need of language immersion institutions, we, despite our track record of a commitment to Greek language schooling, appear not to be addressing the profound demographic changes that have affected our own community in the past generation, especially, the fact that by now, in the majority of cases, both parents work and have dire need of child care facilities for their young.

Such Greek early learning or playgroup style facilities as exist, though they are nowhere near as many as are required by our community, perform an invaluable function. For many children, they are the first and possibly only point of contact with the Greek world. Most importantly, rather than being confronted with the raw mechanics of the language, they are exposed to songs, games, rhymes and words in the Greek language, in which are encoded centuries of traditions, beliefs and social practices that need to be lived, rather than simply learnt. Significantly, they are also learning how to relate to each other as a distinct group of people, having in common a unique cultural heritage that is not just a burdensome bequest but instead (assuming that the propensity to identify in any way as Greek continues) of immediate relevance to their lives. After all, there is no point committing a child to learning a language if there is no forum or community where that language can be spoken. Though studies at the appropriate academic level have not been made, anecdotal evidence tends to suggest that the attendees of such facilities, go on to attack Greek school with gusto, are more able to avail themselves of the opportunities that it offers and are more likely to retain the Greek language in their later years and immerse themselves within the activities of the Greek community, than those who do not and lack the appropriate support at home, with which to learn the language.

            Consequently, it is vital that at this stage in our community's development, a concerted and integrated approach to early learning and child care is developed, involving all interested parties and institutions.  Sadly, while individual entities have and are continuing to make some efforts in this regard, the necessary 'conversation' appears not even to be in its gestation period and this is unfortunate as we tend not to anticipate our communal needs but to identify them long after the original need is made manifest, rendering us unable to arrest the steady decline in Greek language proficiency in the emerging generations. Here, our lack of foresight and inability to articulate and co-ordinate an appropriate early learning policy for our community is failing our future generations.

            Ideally, one would love to see Greek language early learning centres in all municipalities where Greeks reside. Meeting this need, would supply a much needed tessera in the complex mosaic that is Greek language acquisition and retention in multicultural but increasingly monolingual Australia. If anything, it will ensure the longevity of existing Greek language schools whose standards of teaching and enrollment numbers are inexorably and alarmingly diminishing, and the integration of the future generations within a worldwide community of Greek speakers. This March, let us not only speak Greek, but also, ignoring the injunctions of the ill-informed and unqualified, speak on the best ways to teach our children how to do so.


First published in NKEE on Saturday 12 March 2016

Saturday, March 05, 2016


These days, I am compiling a list of illustrious alumni of Greek language schools, in the hope that their celebrity will lend impetus to a drive for local enrollment. Sadly, the rumours of Justin Bieber’s purported Greek ancestry and attendance at a Greek school appear to be unverifiable, (though he did once speak of his desire to release a Greek album with rembetika music, leading us to believe that his knowledge of rembetika is inconsistent with attendance at a diasporan Greek school), and while not of Greek ancestry herself, Jennifer Lopez certainly, takes a proprietorial interest in Greece, even offering solutions for the current woe of that country, if only she is appointed its leader: “If I was the prime minister of Greece I would make all possible investments and efforts in tourism! Greece is the most beautiful country and that’s enough to overcome any crisis!” Again such a positive attitude attests to a complete absence of a diasporic Greek-school education in her early life.
Diasporan educators need to be careful for they never know how their charges’ Greek school experiences will morph their characters or indeed, how such experiences will manifest themselves in public. The most important person ever to have attended a diasporic Greek school was the Russian playwright and short-story writer Anton Chekhov. Chekhov was born in Taganrog, a city that was once the ancient Greek colony of Taiganion on the sea of Azov and was re-colonised by Greek refugees fleeing the Ottoman Empire in the eighteenth century. They treated it as a land of opportunity, investing in farming and trading and transforming the city into a cultural entrepot, through investment in generous civic arts, founding orchestras, clubs, schools and churches, bringing in French chefs and importing Italian sculptors. At the time of Chekhov’s birth, Taganrog was the most important commercial port in Russia, the fortunes of its traders in thrall to the Greek magnates who controlled the export of wheat into the Black Sea and the Mediterranean.
It was this city that served as a repository for Chekhov’s father, a former serf and small-time businessman, Pavel’s dreams of prosperity. Having a passion of chanting, he had previously served as the director the city’s cathedral choir. Being of a fastidious nature, and refusing to omit a single note from his interminably long liturgies, he was dismissed and sought employment at the Greek monastery of St Constantine and Helen in the city, where he was appointed, along with his sons Alexander and Anton. The torture of being hauled out of bed in the freezing cold in order to chant matins remained with the two brothers all their lives, Alexander commenting: “the doctor who treated my family protested at this premature violence to my chest and vocal cords,” while for Anton, it was enough to turn him off religion altogether: “In my childhood, I had a religious education and a religious upbringing…I now have no religion.”
Attached to the Greek monastery was the Greek school. Pavel Chekhov’s Greek customers convinced him that Anton’s future prosperity lay with him becoming a broker in one of the local Greek trading firms, where he could earn 1500 roubles a year. A pre-requisite of attaining such an exalted position was a knowledge of demotic Greek and it was for this reason that in 1867 ‘Antonios Tsekhoph’ was enrolled in the local Greek school. In a manner prescient of the conditions of the early Greek schools in Australia, the teacher, Nikolaos Voutzinas (he of the famous catchphrase: “The parents will pay for everything,”) taught five classes simultaneously, starting with the alphabet and finishing with syntax and history. Periodically, he would disappear to his private quarters, there to have several other of his needs serviced by his Ukrainian housekeeper. In order to enforce discipline, he would employ such enlightened methods as palm-thrashing, crucifixion and strapping a pupil to a step-ladder, there to be spat upon by his fellow-classmates.
Notwithstanding such stellar teaching arrangements, when at the end of the school year, proud Pavel attempted to show off his son’s prowess in Greek to his customers, he was mortified to discover that Anton possessed no more Greek than a knowledge of the alphabet. And this despite the fact that his teacher had given him awards for “diligence” and “exquisite work.” As a result, Anton was enrolled in the local ‘gymnasion,’ where the only mandated punishment was detention in a white-washed cell. Despite this being a paradise compared to the Voutsinas’ regime, Anton retained a distaste for Greek studies, especially the uncritical manner in which everything Greek was lionised and struggled to pass the subject. One of his teachers, Zikos, recruited from Athens, appeared to be more interested in self-enrichment, more than anything else, constantly harassing students teetering on the brink of failure for «χρήματα.» Surprisingly, it was found in the 1880s that he had compromised the school and was repatriated.
Chekhov later sent-up his teachers’ naïve idealization of all that Greece stood for in his one-act farce: “The Wedding”, in which the father of the bride, a retired college registrar, asks increasingly ridiculous questions of his guest, Kharalamby Dymba, a Greek confectioner possessed of poor Russian:
Zhigalov: Have you got tigers in Greece?
Dymba: We have.
Zhigalov: And lions?
Dymba: Lions too. It’s Russia which has nothing, but Greece has everything. I have there
father, uncle, brothers, but here I don’t have nothing.
Dymba’s uniform reply to questions as to whether Greece has whales, lobsters and particular kinds of mushrooms, led the phrase “Greece has everything” permanently entering the Russian language, especially after a Soviet film was made of the play in the 1940s. The phrase was used with increasing cynicism by Soviet citizens as shops became emptier and queues outside them became longer in a parody of Communist propaganda.
Another of Chekhov’s Greek teachers, Diakonov, an extremely dry and pedantic individual also makes an appearance in Chekhov’s writings, for he is widely held to be the inspiration for the creation of the tyrannical Greek teacher Belikov, in his story: “The Man in a Case,” for whom the Greek language is “just like his galoshes and umbrella really, hiding him from real life.” “How resonant and beautiful the Greek language is!” he would say with a sweet expression; and as if to prove the truth of his words, his eyes would narrow and he would raise his finger and say “Anthropos!”
So scarred was he by his Greek education, that Chekhov, at the end of his life, claimed to have no memory of the modern Greek he once learned. Had Chekhov’s father been able to listen to the famous 3XY Greek school advertisement: “I hate Greek school!” “Α, εσένα έψαχνα....τώρα που πηγαίνω στο Ελληνικό [σχολείο] μου αρέσουν τα ελληνικά,” perhaps he would have had the foresight to send his progeny to a Greek school where learning Greek was fun and easy. Sadly he did not and Chekhov is but the most famous of many examples of students who developed a lasting aversion to the Greek language and Greeks as result of an education where the desire for profit and the teachers’ ego took priority over inculcating in students, a love of the subject taught.
Greek-school teachers of Australia, Chekhov’s is a cautionary tale you would do well to heed. If you bore your students, annoy them or drive them away in desperation by your demeanour, lack of enthusiasm, passion, or preparation, you run the risk, not now maybe, but in decades to come, to be immortalized in print, when one of these aggrieved students becomes a gifted writer and resolves to exorcise the ghosts of Greek school teachers past, by a particularly scathing depiction of your own insufficiency. Be insightful, be inspiring, be willing to pour our generously from the cornucopia of our linguistic heritage all that is fascinating and seductive about it and above all, be brilliant. For the anecdote that attributes the inspiration of Chekhov’s famous line: “What a fine weather today! Can’t choose whether to drink tea or to hang myself,” to one of his teachers of Greek, may not be as apocryphal as once was thought. Καλό μάθημα.

First published in NKEE on Saturday 5 March 2016